In the early days of World War One, the Germans planned to march through Belgium as part of their plan to win the war. The Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up much resistance; however, events did not quite turn out that way. In the first in a two-part series, Frank Jastrzembski explains the heroic Belgian defense of its homeland in 1914…

The Defense of Liege by W.B. Wollen. Source: available here.

The Defense of Liege by W.B. Wollen. Source: available here.

All that stood amid the concrete wreckage of Fort Loncin were roughly twenty-five battered Belgian defenders out of the original 500-man garrison. The small portion of surviving Belgian defenders were gathered together in a shattered corridor. Soiled with dust, they stood anxiously clutching their rifles and awaiting the onslaught of German soldiers swarming over the rubble of the once formidable fort. Today a monument stands at the fort celebrating their heroic defense with the inscription, “Passer by... go say to Belgium and France that here 550 Belgians sacrificed themselves for the defense of freedom and the salvation of the world” based on the epitaph by Simonides for the Spartan dead at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC:

Go tell the Spartans passerby,

That here obedient to their laws we lie.

 

Brave Little Belgium

The German invasion through Belgium in August of 1914 was presumed to have been an effortless undertaking. The German soldiers and their officers were stunned by the tenacious defense the Belgians exhibited. The soldiers of the Belgian Army were jokingly referred to as “chocolate soldiers” for the way in which they would melt away in combat from any determined opposition. The Kaiser once said to a British officer, “I will go through Belgium like that!” slicing his hand through the air. However, this gallant little nation shocked and inspired the world with their dogged stand against an enemy invasion force that outnumbered them roughly fourteen to one. “Brave Little Belgium” became a rallying cry around the world signifying a free nation defending their sovereignty against an aggressive German invader.

The Belgian Army was ill prepared to face the juggernaut of the German Army. It numbered seven divisions amounting to 117,000 men, with only 93,000 considered combatants. The Belgian forces in the forts surrounding Liege numbered around 4,500 men, with the mobile Third Division stationed in the city composed of 25,000 soldiers.

The Belgian Army was considered one of the most decrepit armies in Europe. The cavalry still wore early nineteenth century uniforms, with the infantry sporting shakos, bonnets, or bearskins as headgear. In some instances, machine gun crews were drawn behind teams of dogs. What the Belgian forces lacked in size and modern equipment though, they more than made up for in their tenacious willpower to defend their borders.

 

Schlieffen Plan

The neutral nation of Belgium found itself positioned in the center stage of a colossal conflict when the Great War broke out in August of 1914. The German General Staff dusted off the Schlieffen Plan geared to strike a devastating blow to their French enemies. They sensibly anticipated that France would naively concentrate an offensive toward Alsace-Lorraine along the Franco-German border. The German General Staff was delighted when the French proceeded to overextend themselves in this aggressive movement.

While France was preoccupied with this maneuver, the Germans concentrated their soldiers on the opposite side on the Ardennes in an aggressive flanking movement. The heavily wooded Ardennes would shield this movement, allowing German infantrymen to boldly sweep around the French left flank and crash into Paris. The movement would allow them to outflank and strike the French Army from an exposed position. This was a brilliant strategy aimed to end the war with one swift and devastating strike.

One of the many major flaws in the Schlieffen Plan was underestimating the opposition of the neutral nation of Belgium. In order to successfully implement the Schlieffen Plan, German soldiers would have to move through Belgium. This movement would allow for the easiest route to travel through northern Germany into France. An ultimatum was sent out on August 2 with a twelve-hour window to reply. The Germans demanded that the Belgian King, Albert I, grant them military access and allow their infantrymen to march through Belgium uncontested. Albert was skeptical of German intentions, and flatly refused, asserting that if they entered Belgian territory their neutrality rights would be violated.

The Germans moved into Belgium nevertheless, deliberately violating Belgian neutrality. The Belgian’s only hope was to contain the German Army long enough for French or British support to arrive. If a stand was to be made, it would be done at the formidable fortresses surrounding the city of Liege.

 

Liege

The city of Liege was strategically located on a high bluff overlooking the Meuse River. Twelve massive triangular forts surrounded Liege, forming a circle of thirty-six miles in circumference. Each fortress was located a distance of six miles from the center of Liege. The fortresses were two to three miles apart, with fortifications dug in between to form a connected chain. Fourteen guns were located in each fort under revolving iron turrets and secured in concrete. Built to garrison around 200 men, these forts were made to withstand direct hits from the heaviest of artillery. World opinion viewed the position the most fortifiable in Europe, and expected it to hold out at least nine months against any serious military threat. 

Albert named his former teacher at the Belgian War College, Gerard Mathieu Leman, as the overall commander of the forces surrounding Liege. He could not have selected a better man for the defense of Belgium. At sixty-three years old, the commander would be fighting literally in the city of his birth in 1851. In the prelude of the battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, Abraham Lincoln claimed the newly appointed Pennsylvanian commander George Meade would “fight well on his own dunghill.” Albert must have had the same predispositions of Leman.

In his youth, Leman was admitted to the Belgian Military School in 1867 and proved to be a brilliant student. He opted to serve in the engineers upon his graduation in 1872. In 1880, he was placed in command of the Belgian Royal Engineer Corps. In 1898, he was made professor of mathematics and fortifications at the Belgian Royal Military School. The scholarly papers related to mathematics and siege warfare published by Leman earned him world renown. In 1912, he was made a lieutenant general. Leman was described as a somber, distant man who inspired respect rather than devotion.

Albert appointed him a permanent member of the National Defense Council. This gave him command of the Third Division and the Liege fortified zone on the border with Germany. He zealously studied the approaches to the Ardennes and Meuse River crossings in anticipation of the German invasion. Albert gave Leman a direct order to hold Liege “to the end”. This was a daunting task for the inadequate force he had at his disposal.

 

Preparation for the attack

Roughly 60,000 soldiers were detached from various units in the German Second Army to form a special striking force to attack and neutralize the forts surrounding Liege. The Army of the Meuse, as it became known, consisted of six brigades under the command of General Albert Theodor Otto von Emmich. General von Emmich was convinced the Belgians would quickly submit.  

General Leman set up his headquarters in Liege on July 31, 1914. On August 3, he ordered the destruction of the bridges, tunnels, and railways connected to Liege as the German forces began to flood across the small Belgian border. The next day the German Army of the Meuse arrayed for battle outside the ring of forts. An ultimatum was sent out to allow the Germans to enter Liege. Leman boldly refused the demand to surrender.

The attack then began, and the Belgians offered much greater resistance than the Germans had imagined. Next time we will continue this little-known tale…

 

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Further Reading

Davis, Paul K. Besieged: An Encyclopedia of Great Sieges from Ancient Times to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

Donnell, Clayton. The Forts of the Meuse in World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Horne, Charles F. The Great Events of the Great War Part Two. Volume II ed. The National Alumni, 1920.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Lipkes, Jeff. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2007.

Meyer, G. J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York City: Delacorte Press, 2007.

Pawly, Ronald, Pierre Lierneux, and Patrice Courcelle. The Belgian Army in World War I. Oxford: Osprey, 2009.

Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Tucker, Spencer C., and Priscilla Mary Roberts. World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. 5 vols. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006.